February is an unstable time of the year. It isn’t spring and it isn’t winter. There are a few 50 degree days that trick us into spring fever before the heaviest snows even come. Still, the horses are shedding, days are longer and it’s hard to not want outside again full-time. There’s no rhythm in this bi-polar month.
If the routine is erratic, why fight it? Celebrate failed intentions as art. Do something different and say it’s on purpose. Make lemonade-icicles.
Why not get creative with some horse-play on the ground? Too much of the time, we focus entirely on working on our riding skills. We’re so serious about work, or it’s the vet or the farrier. Enough! All work and no play make you a dull partner.
For our horses, it’s always about relationship, and they don’t differentiate much between mounted and ground work. (Read that line twice!) They are more interested in connection and cooperation, and establishing it on the ground is the first step to a great ride. Would you like to feel your horse tugging on the lead rope towards the arena?
The current message from my horses and my client’s horses is blunt: Let that pony run! They have kinks that need bucking out. Cold weather creates a natural tension in their muscles, horses need to stretch out the knots. Find some safe footing, wrap his legs if you want, but let ‘em go! Then stand and watch them in full glory as they run by and look at you right in the eye, and then rocket away. Love and respect at a gallop! When he digs in and bolts, let out a big whoop so he knows you feel it, too. Horse play!
Once the initial bit of galloping and bucking settles down, it’s time for fun. Horses communicate through body language, so the quickest way to get into his head is through a conversation using your body. Start with big cues if you need them, but then get very small and as light as breath. Listen to him closely, and reward every try. He doesn’t have to be perfect, he just has to try. Reward way too much and keep it light. You be interesting enough that he stays with you, even without a rope.
It’s easier than it looks. Each of the rescue horses that come here from Ruby Ranch start training this way, and each one does transitions off my breath the first day. It makes sense to them. So, lighten up, give a big inhale for upward transitions and exhale for downward. Then get playful. (More tips here.)
It could be free jumping or freestyle dancing, or anything thing else you imagine with ‘free’ in the title. If you are using objects in the arena as obstacles, then it’s Horse Agility, the most fun of all.
If your horse looks bored, well, that’s all about you. Too much correction and not enough direction. Get out ahead, give him a demonstration. Crank up the music, and find an irresistible anthem, then dance till you drop. Give your horse a chance to join you, with lots of verbal reward, laugh out loud. Engage him to follow or mimic you. It’s the birth of liberty work! If people at the barn stare, all the better. They won’t look at you in that bored way from now on either.
The best part of this game is that you make up the rules, the cues, everything. There is no wrong answer from the horse, just negotiation towards a goal. No one else has a better advantage from breed or riding discipline. It is a very equal playground.
If your horse is the stoic sort, it might take a couple of tries for the two of you to find a mutual game, but there’s time. After all, its February and there isn’t anything better to do.
The more horses teach me about ground-play, the more I know how much we under-rate the important benefits it provides both horse and rider. It is the quickest path to understanding and communication, and because it’s play, it’s really dynamic. Let your horse have a voice, a sense of humor. It might not be what you expect, but once they start sharing, it’s hard to shut them up, and that’s responsiveness.
Stay playful and keep an open eye. Let your horse surprise you.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.
P.S. Looking forward to a summer of playing with Horse Agility here at Infinity Farm.